We urgently need a much bigger fightback to stop the bosses’ and the Tories’ assault on working class people.
The savage job cuts in steel are only the latest example of what is at stake if they get their way.
But too often attacks go through without a fight. How can this be turned around?
Some people agree in the abstract that workers could fight. But they argue workers won’t fight in reality because they lack confidence.
It’s true that there is a relative lack of confidence among workers in Britain. But this isn’t fixed—and it doesn’t make struggle impossible.
Struggle doesn’t simply come about when workers become confident enough to resist.
The system pushes workers to fight back. And workers gain confidence through struggle.
Under capitalism competing bosses have to constantly try and squeeze more out of workers for less. These attacks mean struggles break out even if workers don’t set out with the intention of fighting.
This can happen unexpectedly.
In March 2009 car components firm Visteon, a subsidiary of multinational Ford, sacked 600 workers with six minutes’ notice.
In Enfield, north London, bosses told stunned workers to return the next morning to clear their lockers. They were to get no redundancy pay.
Workers returned and occupied the plant, having got the idea from workers in Belfast who had done the same thing. They stressed that this wasn’t a “militant” workplace with a history of struggle.
Many had never been on strike before. And in this case union organisation wasn’t key. The union didn’t call on workers to act—events pushed them to.
Of course Visteon is the exception, not the rule. In recent years in Britain it has been much more likely for cuts and closures to go through without a fightback. Occupations are very rare.
Capitalism generates struggle. But it isn’t enough to simply sit back and wait for it. Other pressures discourage a fight.
Workers are the most powerful group in capitalist societies. They keep the system going—and can bring it to a halt.
They have the economic strength and numbers to get rid of the bosses and create a new world.
Yet most of the time workers feel powerless. They have little or no control over production and can feel that the bosses call all the shots.
They are not encouraged to think of themselves as “players” in society who can take action to win change. Instead they are encouraged to know their “place” and look to others to act on their behalf—such as union leaders and the Labour Party.
Workers have contradictory experiences under capitalism. That means that, across the class, ideas are always uneven.
Some people easily accept right wing ideas, while others are out and out reactionaries. Some are more left wing. Most get pulled in different directions.
It can seem that there’s a glorious history of working class strength in Britain and that workers were more combative in the past.
But behind every struggle are ferocious arguments. There are always right wing workers pushing for compromise.
For instance, miners who struck in 1984-85 are often portrayed as a uniquely militant, strong group of workers.
The truth is more complicated.
There were constant arguments throughout the strike. At times it was stronger, and at times weaker. At several points it seemed defeat was imminent.
Yet the strike kept going for a year.
When workers take effective action they face a barrage of abuse from politicians and the press. This, together with arguments from more conservative workers, puts on pressure to retreat. But this can be overcome.
Mass meetings and picket lines let workers openly discuss arguments and give activists a chance to argue for a strategy that can win. They allow workers to take an active involvement in disputes.
Workers’ confidence grows through their self-activity. That’s one of the reasons why socialists focus on it. It isn’t only that the union leaders can’t be trusted.
When workers become active they begin to realise their own power.
They begin to change themselves, step out of their “place” in the world and do things they thought they never could.
Juliet was part of a strike at Lambeth College in south London that won a victory in January. “I have changed because of it,” she told Socialist Worker. “I was nervous speaking at union meetings at first. By the end I really enjoyed it.
Organised trade unionists and socialists can make a big difference to whether struggles go forward or fail.
In recent years many important disputes—such as Lambeth College, the National Gallery and Edinburgh College—had socialists at their heart.
The National Gallery strike was partly about defending a socialist from victimisation—PCS union rep Candy Udwin.
Throughout 2011 and into 2012 rank and file construction workers across Britain organised a campaign to defend their contracts. Socialists were key to this too.
This is an industry where some workers feel very precarious. The nature of the work means many are on short term contracts. Bosses have used blacklisting against workers.
Yet the construction protests, pickets and strikes were some of the most militant in recent British history.
Solidarity can play a crucial role too.
The fight at Visteon could have fizzled out. Bosses quickly moved to use the law against workers, threatening court injunctions, fines and so on.
On the day the occupation began socialists and others in the area spread the word. They brought sleeping bags, food and other provisions to support the occupiers.
When the bosses’ threats came, socialists organised support and gave advice about how to respond.
Crucially they argued that workers should escalate—and fight to get Ford workers to take action too.
Ford eventually backed down and paid out redundancy packages.
The experience of the struggle transformed people and their confidence.
As occupying worker Phil Wilson put it, “When we were sacked we had everything knocked out of us. But we’re more confident now because of what we’ve done.
“This has made people realise that they have a lot more potential than they thought.”
Saying workers won’t fight can act as a get-out clause. Unite union leader Len McCluskey, speaking to the People’s Assembly in June 2013, talked of the need to “create the right climate” before calling action.
But union leaders failing to lead encourages pessimism. When they call hard-hitting action it can inspire workers.
In 2009 Unite held a mass meeting of British Airways workers and announced 12 days of strikes over Christmas.
It was met with a thunderous standing ovation. Workers understood that such action would have a big impact and show their power. It also indicated that union leaders were serious.
A mass strike in Britain on 30 November 2011, involving 29 unions, was the biggest action since 1926. It boosted workers’ confidence.
As Birmingham teacher Theresa put it, “It’s made people feel stronger. They think there’s something they can do now.”
This isn’t to say that workers are always up for a fight. And sometimes socialists rightly argue against action if they judge that the balance of forces means it won’t win.
What activists argue for always depends on specific circumstances.
But there are always people who say workers won’t fight—and socialists should challenge them.
French intellectual Andre Gorz declared in 1968, “In the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes.”
Revolutionary general strikes soon followed.
Gorz returned to the theme later with a book entitled Farewell to the Working Class. It was first published in 1980—the start of a decade of large-scale strikes.
Every attack won’t automatically lead to struggle. And struggles aren’t guaranteed to win. But a system built on oppression and exploitation will always generate sparks of resistance.
It’s the job of socialists to fan the flames.
- 30 Years On: the Great Miners' Strike tinyurl.com/pj8bdo5
- The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After by Chris Harman, £9.95
- The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos £9.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk